Thursday, June 10, 2010

The house-hunting rollercoaster

I've engaged in more emotional eating during the past few days than I care to admit.

The reason: a contract on a townhouse that fell through.

In order to fully appreciate the range of emotions that we've experienced lately, you need to understand our current living situation. My husband and I moved to northern Virgina in July 2004 so that I could begin graduate studies. I was unable to accompany him on the apartment-finding trip, but we had compiled a list of promising complexes together before he left. Every one of those complexes turned out to have major drawbacks, and I'm sure he chose the best of the lot, but on moving day, I arrived first with the cats, and when I saw the tiny kitchen and tiny (single) bathroom, I almost cried. I have since realized that we have a fairly typical floorplan for this area, but that hasn't made my stay here much easier. Imagine an accomplished cook who likes to do "involved" recipes having to do so with enough counter space to make a peanut butter sandwich. But the kitchen, now, is a mere headache comparaed to the items on our list of grievances, which has mushroomed in the six years we've lived here: mildew coming up from the pipes in the bathroom (I have a mold allergy), unknown bugs (neither bedbugs nor fleas) that have (I think) caused one of our cats to lose the fur on the backs of his front legs, a washing machine that leaves dark, concentrated rust streaks on good clothes (and that has a violent "gentle" cycle that has destroyed other items), floorboards and walls so thin that we can hear every sneeze our neighbors make, towing companies that have mistakenly towed our car from our reserved spot, etc, etc, etc....We've been trying to get out of this place for about 3 years now, but there just aren't any other apartments in locations that won't make one or both commutes worse, won't break the bank, or, from a prolonged reading of renters' reviews, subject us to the same problems we already face.

We really thought we'd done it this year, though. A good friend of mine moved out of the area in April and her townhouse was still on the market a month later. It seemed ideal: the location was better than our current apartment, the neighbors were nice, and it had most of the features we wanted in a home. We put in an offer, and my friend was as excited as we were.

We met with the loan officer and filled out the application for financing. No problems there. We had the appraisal done--no problems there, either. I went over to the property several times and measured all the rooms and checked "home decorating" books out of the library. We had preliminary ideas for all but two rooms, and we were counting the days. Then we had the home inspection.

The exterior of the property needed some minor repairs, but nothing expensive or invasive. All was looking good. We went down to the basement to start the interior inspection in the utility room. The inspector removed the cover from the electrical panel and asked us how much we loved the house. The house, he said, had aluminum wiring. At first, we were just confused--what could be bad about aluminum wiring? Isn't aluminum a conductor? The inspector explained that aluminum wiring was more likely to cause a fire than copper wire. Furthermore, these risks increase when aluminum wire, which is no longer in use for that very reason, is joined to the copper wire in modern fixtures, and the lights and outlets looked too new to be original. Rewiring the house would probably cost $15-20,000. There were special connectors to mitigate the fire risk; they would probably cost a couple of thousand dollars to install, if they hadn't been already. The only way to know for sure was to hire an electrician to inspect the system. The home inspector advised us to go home and do some research on aluminum wiring and call him if we decided to go through with the deal, at which point he would resume the inspection. He wouldn't charge us for the little he'd done so far.

We went home and started reading up on the topic. I won't take up any more space with boring technical details, but there's a good summary at (I looked through a lot of material. This website seems to be balanced and accurate.). We talked to one of my uncles, who has an electrical engineering degree and who now works part-time as his local Home Depot's wiring specialist. He said that he distrusted any mix of copper and aluminum, and agreed with us that any repairs made to our unit would be meaningless if the neighbors with whom we would share walls had done nothing or undertaken an unsafe repair. We talked to a representative at our insurance company, who assured us that they would issue a policy at no additional premium, but nevertheless would advise against buying the property. We also learned that overloading an aluminum-wired circuit could cause a fire before the circuit breaker tripped. We are not electricity sippers: we have a big TV and a chest freezer. By Monday morning, we had decided that the only way we would feel safe was if we could be assured that the homeowners' association could prove that all the units in our row had been repaired according to one of the only two methods we could accept (rewiring or the COPALUM crimp).

I went in to the HOA office for a casual chat with the representative on duty. As expected, the HOA had never required any owner to do anything about the interior of their property. She knew aluminum wiring was an issue, but she understood that there were connectors that could join copper to aluminum. I explained what I'd learned--that those connectors have since proven to be a greater fire hazard than doing nothing. She seemed genuiunely surprised--she knew only that joining in new copper fixtures was not easy, but she had no idea that it was dangerous. She also said that she'd lived in her unit for 25 years and had never had a problem. Again, I told her what I'd learned: aluminum wiring has about a 30-year lifespan, which means that as time goes on, the risk increases. She then said that there had been two fires in the complex in recent years, but that one of them was due to an overloaded basement circuit--exactly the kind of situation I feared our high-usage appliances might lead to (overloaded copper circuits generally trip the breakers before they burn out, unlike aluminum). My heart sank when she told me about the fires. I left the office and called my husband, and we agreed that if the unit had been completely detached, we might have gone through with the contract and brought in an electrician qualified to rewire or do the COPALUM crimp, although there aren't many around. But the unit was part of a row, and that changed everything. Reluctantly, we called off the deal. We were completely crushed.

The home inspector said he guessed that the seller wasn't aware of the wiring, and I believe him. When she bought the property herself, the market was hot, and home inspections were one of the casualties (sellers were rejecting contracts with inspection contingencies, and many inspectors feared that too many "lost sales" would lead to realtors no longer giving them referrals, so that buyers weren't given all the details). Additionally, at that time, the "pigtailing" repair was considered by many electricians to be safe. Now it's not. So I don't blame her in any way, and I don't think she'll have trouble finding another buyer. But I can't bring myself to trust the neighbors, and I fear that our heavy usage would put us at greater risk.

So here we stay. With nothing else promising on the horizon, we have signed another lease. We did finally get through to the management about the washing machine, though, and we are supposed to be getting a new one tomorrow. I'll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile, we keep looking, although buying a house before next July will mean paying about $4000 to break lease.

Bring on the ice cream...

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